Futurism & l’art pour l’art

I have had a very busy stretch recently, writing a lot (for work) and thinking a lot (not for work; mostly about dying hegemons, nuclear warfare and tectonic shifts). Unfortunately this combination of energy and physical fatigue makes for a lot of half-formed, half-baked ideas. I need to get them out somehow – so please don’t judge me for the incoherence.

One of these days I will have a ton of time, energy, rested mind and spirit, no distractions, and I can sit and write something and then perfectly sculpt into orderly, insightful, joyous concepts. One of these days….probably in another life.

But not this one. So here goes.

The world has long been separated into two camps: those who think art should be enjoyed for art’s sake and those who..don’t. Those who don’t instead believe in art as a moral medium, a vehicle in which to convey messages or reflection of the social conditions in which art exists.

Of the first camp, there are commonly two justifications for this:

First is purely aesthetic, whereby art should merely be visually or aurally appealing, it should “spark joy” pure and simple, to steal the highly problematic words of Marie Kondo (and which the other half of the concept, it should spark joy or “throw it away” in my feverishly overactive imagination brings to mind a terrifying vision of society; eugenics and genocide and all of that bad stuff).


Second is little more than a thinly veiled excuse for the first: art should be accessible to be able to convey expression to as wide an audience as possible.

Of the second camp, there is again a further split:

Art should have a moralistic, didactic function and should strive to teach and improve.


Art should be politicised and should be used as a tool for criticising society and mobilising the working class against bourgeoise oppression.

As Bertold Brecht explained: “Art is not a mirror held up to society; but a hammer with which to shape it.”

No prizes for guessing what this little quadrant graph correlates to then! As everything in life, it generally reflects the broad political (class) spectrum.

Of the l’art pour l’art camp:
(apologies for the Anglocentricism – but this is my frame of reference)

1. The bourgeoise (represented by the centre-right, today the neolibs) who hate theory, fear depth and intimacy, enjoy simplicity, prefer to take things at face value which means empty aesthetics above all. Think New Labour soundbites, think advertising industry, think middle-of-the road and unconfrontational blandness that is the hallmark of today’s developer-led urbanism.

2. The socialists or social democrats (centre-left, soft left, Fabians and Orwell, the third way people, in today’s money the Starmerites) who if we are to be generous are comfortable with a sort of pact-like arrangement with the centre-right, and if we are to be cynical are prepared to sprinkle a bit of theory over the moral void of the bourgeoisie to make it a little more palatable. They offer a little social critique if provoked but it is not their modus operandi: they are happy to do whatever it takes to take power, regardless of whether this means abandoning all beliefs or worse, forgetting what they actually believe (spoiler: usually little to nothing) in once they actually get close to power (and here a brief interjection: take heed – don’t trust Starmer’s trumpeting about electoral reform and a national energy company. I’ll believe it when I see it). Hence, art is only fulfilling a role if it reaches a wide audience, regardless of what it has to say or what it stands for.

And of the l’art pour plus que l’art (?? Sorry my French is rusty/nasty)

3. The right and far-right who believe that art should preach, moralise, and should have the sole underlying purpose of self-improvement (think zealots, Hitler, the Futurists – who are the reason I am writing about this today). Nietzche, who did in rare cases have some useful things to say but often not, summarised the vehemently anti art as aesthetic stance in his writings Twilight of the Idols, a piece of work that is centred around the famous aphorism “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” likely today a motto of the incels the world over (including the arch-incel, Vladimir Putin) and the ever-shrinking British working-class electorate in northern seats who continue as an act of self-harm to vote for an alarmingly mouth-foaming and rabid Tory party.

Old Nietsch (sic) said:

When the purpose of moral preaching and of improving man has been excluded from art, it still does not follow by any means that art is altogether purposeless, aimless, senseless — in short, l’art pour l’art, a worm chewing its own tail. “Rather no purpose at all than a moral purpose!” — that is the talk of mere passion. A psychologist, on the other hand, asks: what does all art do? does it not praise? glorify? choose? prefer?

With all this it strengthens or weakens certain valuations. Is this merely a “moreover”? an accident? something in which the artist’s instinct had no share? Or is it not the very presupposition of the artist’s ability? Does his basic instinct aim at art, or rather at the sense of art, at life? at a desirability of life?

Art is the great stimulus to life: how could one understand it as purposeless, as aimless, as l’art pour l’art?”

4. OK, now we get to the best one. The Marxist take on art is that is primarily a tool for social critique, and as the producer of art is part of the society, then the two simply cannot be detached (see Brecht).

For me, instinctively, the first assessment I make when I contemplate a piece of art is not how it looks but in which context was it produced, and from there it is possible to decipher the message (and, importantly, from and to whom the message is aimed).

The Frankfurt school wrote extensively on art and probably the most important frame of reference is Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. This is a thesis to which I fully can subscribe: the shackles lifted on modern artists leads to a greater responsibility for social critique. Although, I do think he went too sour and his writings on music in Minima Moralia make my blood boil. I would contest rejection of musical innovation and “crimes of pop music.” He lauded high European culture and classical music and rejected jazz, blues. To this I have some strong questions around Eurocentricism and I would ask why he is rejecting so outrightedly culture that is not dominated and led by white well-educated Europeans.

Pop culture, punk, and the aestheticising trap

Use Hearing Protection Exhibition, Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. Marianne Kell, December 2021

One thing that I have often questioned about Anglo-American culture is how readily and deftly with which pop culture vacuums up and absorbs aesthetic influences from outside the Anglosphere without really engaging with the concept its represents. My partner, who was born and raised in Farawayistan (i.e. outside the Anglo world), explained that it’s because British and Americans conceptualise the world in three ways: 1. Colonise; 2. Tourism; 3. Coloniser-tourist.

I had to admit, he has a point. With the caveat that the whiter and richer the Anglophone, the more likely this is to apply. The Anglophone is never an immigrant; always an “ex-pat.” We are at home everywhere (coloniser) and we can survive most places with only a basic grasp of the local language and customs (tourist). My partner also raised the point that the Anglo world is fixated with the “deep dive” (coloniser-tourist). We have a binary relationship to the world around us: either complete disinterest and rejection or full immersion to the point we feverishly consume everything we can find that will bolster us to the much-coveted “expert” status. Hence the raft of hobbyists and collectors (and looters, looking at you, British Museum) that Anglo-America inflicts on the rest of the world.

A case in point. Last winter, I visited Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry – “Use Hearing Protection.” It was about Factory Records, the label that was the main driver of the Manchester scene and also operated the now-defunct Hacienda nightclub which is very much part of the musical lore of the country. The label signed New Order, Joy Division, Happy Mondays, Durutti Column, James, and many others shaping the British (and I’d also say European and even American) post-punk scene. Their influence is still felt today: there are so many British, American, Canadian bands from the past 20 years that are keeping that FAC sound, although by now it sounds rather pastiche and, quite frankly, dull.

The exhibition itself was fairly interesting, although as always these days when reflecting on musical production and cultural scenes in Britain in the 20th century, I mostly feel sad about how our culture and ability for creative minds to produce and reflect has been completely destroyed in the past 10-20 years. Support systems to allow creative types to create AND live have long since withered up and this has had a huge impact on our modern society which, I argue, is characterised by sterility, pastiche, blandness, and an overall aura of anxiety. BUT: that is a long discussion for another time (and I will need to bring in some of Mark Fisher’s thinking, which deserves time and attention of its own. Mark Fisher should never be a footnote).

I digress.

The main takeaway from the exhibition for me was learning that Factory Records took the graphic design inspiration (both logo and font) from the Italian Futurists. You can have a look at the FAC album covers here.


Fortunato Depero Museum, one rainy afternoon in Rovereto, August 2022, Marianne Kell

The Futurist movement was an Italian art, film and architecture and socio-political movement that was essentially a cheerleading club for Mussolini and celebrates speed, violence, and power (surely Le Corbusier was a fan then). It was founded by several mixed medium artists, with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti being the most ardent. They were an odd bunch, clearly influenced by the Swiss Dadaist surrealism, with strange puppetry and experimental, kind of proto-industrial music embedded within their movement. In the manifesto, Marinetti writes that we need to keep knocking down buildings each generation, and building new ones, which is obviously a bit mad, especially in a country that celebrates its ancient Roman heritage. Marinetti was really an early hipster who supported a death cult. Really a Proud Boy ahead of his time.  

One of the Futurist artists, not a contributor to the manifesto and stayed silent on support for Mussolini’s fascist regime (in a sort-of tacit support, it is understood), is Fortunato Depero. It turns out Depero was born in my boyfriend’s hometown (a small town in Trentino). One rainy day this summer, we visited the museum and I have to say that visually speaking, Depero’s art is lovely, but there are racist under(over)tones which are impossible to ignore. Great designer, but terrible beliefs.

The form and function is clearly influenced by cubism and I could see some Joan Miro in there in the formation of shapes and also colour palette. His Campari adverts pop up here and there (I think there are even posters hanging in some lefty pub in my hometown). There’s clearly also a reflection of socialist movements such as Bauhaus and the parallel communist Russian Futurism, both of which (it will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me) I very much enjoy.

Futurist Roof, MART, Rovereto (Museum of Modern Art). Marianne Kell, August 2022

However, my point now is that I do sympathise with Peter Saville and the FAC creative team – it must be said that Depero’s art is visually appealing. And then, I felt a dissonance between l’art pour l’art and experiencing aesthetic pleasure and my moral conscience, which understands that the Futurists were terrible fascists who supported widespread civil violence and killing communists.

The second point of this, is that we need to be careful about the provenance of things we “borrow.” The New Order cover, taken directly from Depero’s illustration of the 1932 Futurist exhibition in Trentino (possibly Rovereto, L’s hometown?), is a step too far. I wouldn’t want to see an Arctic Monkeys album cover influenced by Mein Kampf – just because Futurism looks nice, still doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to recycle it without question.  It is difficult to swallow that an ostensibly left-wing, anti-Thatcher wave would take its look and feel from overtly fascist art movement. It’s as if, I dunno, Rough Trade would suddenly start producing the artwork of their signed bands in font Fraktur, entering sponsorship deals with Hugo Boss and depicting Wagnerian scenes.

Although, looking back again retrospectively at the apolitical, culturally illiterate, pointlessly hedonistic and self-congratulory, overwhelmingly white and male music scene of the UK in the late 90s and early 00s, probably the signs of the cultural landscape of the preceding decade(s) should have been clearer. Also, one of the mainstream figures to come out of that, Morrissey, has turned out to be horribly racist and right-wing so it does seem that the picture is coming into focus.

Usually, when something states to be “neither right nor left,” it means it is to be treated with suspicion, and, more often than not, silence speaks volumes. Nothing is ever apolitical; to be apolitical is in itself a political act. This certainly doesn’t mean that anything that has ever touched a Factory Record label should be “cancelled”; that is not how the world should work. The message is simply sort-of: don’t judge a book by its cover — the cover might look nice but what’s inside could well be alarming. Read it first and then decide.

EUR and the Fascist Colosseum

Palace of Italian Civilisation (c) Marianne Kell, 2022

A second and final entry on Rome before we move on to other things. I might squeeze one out at a later date on Italian urban planning more generally, but for now I think this is enough.

Hipster boyfriend long had a quest in mind to track down the abbey which produces the only Italian trappiste beer. He mentioned it a few years back, and we found it online, via a webshop called Holy Art selling among other things priest robes and statues of Mary. We dabbled with the idea of placing an order, but the shipping costs were extortionate, and we felt it would be overly decadent to have them ship from Italy a few bottles of beer since we can easily buy perfectly good Belgian or English trappistes within a 3 mile radius of our house.

When we decided that we must go to Rome, it dawned on us that we could visit the abbey, Tre Fontane, and buy the beer from their shop to bring home. Luckily for us, Tre Fontane is well-connected to Rome city and located close to the blue metro line (Linea B). To get there, we simply had to jump on the metro at Termini and then pass through the EUR district on foot.

We got off the metro at EUR Fermi, the third of the three EUR metro stops (EUR Palasport and EUR Magliana the other two). It was a fairly long walk around administrative buildings, post office and bank headquarters that seem to characterise EUR Fermi, around a somewhat creepy near-deserted funfair, uphill through a surprisingly luscious and verdant park (given it was wedged between dual carriageways) and then back down toward the road. We crossed the busy dual carriageway, and then noticed a brown sign directing us to Tre Fontane behind a high wall.  The moment we entered the gates, we found a long, tree-lined avenue leading to the abbey. Although the dual carriageway was right alongside us, the high stone wall and the trees prove surprisingly effective at blocking out traffic noise and it felt strangely still and quiet.

Tre Fontane abbey, Rome. (c) Marianne Kell, 2022

We entered the abbey grounds and the feeling of calm and tranquillity prevailed. The monastery consisted quite simply of a church and crypt, a chapel, and not one but two shops (clearly these monks have their house in order) arranged around a courtyard. Inside one of the shops was a room for chocolate tasting, as well as a small café-bakery and an impressively stocked bar. We succeeded in buying our trappistes, a eucalyptus-flavoured one and a selection of others. After debating whether or not to buy chocolate too (we decided against it as it was already hot outside and we didn’t fancy carrying a dripping bag of melted chocolate around), we boxed up our haul of trappistes and left the calm little oasis to head back up the hill to EUR.

What is EUR?

The architecture of EUR is quite striking, I have to say. It feels imposing, somewhat Orwellian (to use a stereotypically British adjective) and I would imagine it would be the perfect backdrop for a re-make of the film adaptation of 1984.

EUR itself is a rather odd suburb of Rome city. The acronymn EUR stands for Esposizione Universale Roma, and its construction was originally intended for a special Expo in 1940 (in the same vein as the World Expos still taking place now, such as Dubai Expo 2020 and Milan Expo 2015). Obviously, as Italy entered World War II in 1942, this did not turn out as planned and the exhibition never took place.

The concept of the suburb was concocted by Mussolini to celebrate 20 years of fascism. The suburb itself is the biggest example of urban planning and architecture from the fascist period in Italy ,and it is as austere and pompous as one might expect from a projection of fascist vision. The style is highly rationalist, all straight lines, colonnades, marble, and travertine cladding and the idea underpinning the design was to heavily draw upon classical Roman city planning.  Piazza Guglielmo Marconi for example is centred around an obelisk typical of the Roman ones you find dotted around the squares of Rome historical city centre. The chief architect and urban planner for EUR was Marcello Piacentini, the official architect of the fascist regime in the typical stripped-down neoclassical style which was also prevalent in Nazi Germany.

Palace of Italian Civilisation, (c) Marianne Kell, 2022

The Palace of Italian Civilisation (pictured above), or Squared Colosseum (or as L called it, the Fascist Colosseum) is the marble centrepiece of the district and looks like a mash-up of Roman temples and various administrative buildings from the Roman age. Designed by three architects of the fascist era, Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto La Padula, and Mario Romano, it was supposed to represent Italian history from Roman times and, in true fascist style, connecting this with the superiority of the Italian race. L explained that the inscription at the top was taken from a speech by Mussolini, and referred to Italy as a nation of thinkers, poets, artists, scientists, heroes, and so on. The sculptures on podiums around the structure itself represent these qualities, cared from Carrara marble.

The actual Roman colosseum. (c) Marianne Kell, 2022

Knowing very little about the period of fascism in Italy beyond the basics, I was unsure whether Mussolini drew upon myths of origin as the Nazi Party used as the basis of their disgusting and scary race laws. L explained that there was a weird picking-and-choosing of elements drawn from Roman history, and weaving in elements of Roman culture to justify or strengthen their horrible fascist beliefs. The symbolism and iconography around EUR was in many ways a reflection of this.

The Palace of Civilisation itself I found horrifying and fascinating in equal measure. It was so unbelievably stark, placed atop a hill overlooking the entire district. The white marble juxtaposes sharply with the green treelined avenues and parks dotted around EUR, which despite the austere rationalist architecture, leaves a weirdly pleasant feeling of coolness and airiness in a city that gets extraordinarily hot and humid in summer.

EURPalas was also architecturally intriguing. The Palasport is a stadium that was completed later, in 1960 for the Rome Olympics. It has a pleasingly 1960s style aesthetic, spaceship-like and a bit Buckminster Fuller-esque. Although it underwent major renovations in the early 2000s and is nowadays still used as a basketball arena and concert venue, it still retains the typical 1960s form. The artificial lake, also constructed for the 1960 Olympics, is still intact.

In general, the EUR district was a surprising contrast to the historical city centre of Rome. We went there on a Thursday morning, and the area was extremely quiet so we had plenty of time and space to wander around the district. Definitely worth doing, if only to enjoy the contrast with the rest of the city which is absolutely stuffed full of ancient Roman ruins.